Since she was a college student, Ilene Gordon dreamed of running a Fortune 500 company.
She finally achieved that goal last year when her company Ingredion exceeded sales of $6 billion for the first time, making her one of only 21 women to run a company in the coveted Fortune 500 list.
“Over a 35 year career, I got there,” said Gordon, chief executive, chairman and president of Ingredion. “When we became a Fortune 500 company a year ago when our sales hit over six billion, I have to say that was my dream, it was very satisfying to fulfil that dream.”
In the four years since Gordon joined Ingredion — which makes food additives such as starches and corn syrup – its share price has gone from $25 to $60.
“We’re a very global company with over 11,000 people,” she said. “So really my job entails not only running the company from our Chicago base but really getting out into the field and to our 40 different factories. ”
“It’s a 24/7 job. I love it, and I’ve built on my whole career to be ready for a position like this.”
Her achievement is even more remarkable given the company has faced a public backlash over one of its staple products, high-fructose corn syrup,
which many people blame for rising obesity.
When Gordon joined the company — then called Corn Products — in 2009, she quickly diversified into other products, acquired National Starch and changed its name to Ingredion to reflect its new focus.
“We really diversified and actually only 14% of our sales globally are focused on high fructose for the soft drink industry,” said Gordon.
“It is a perception problem and high fructose and sugar are really the same dynamics,” said Gordon. “Consumers really want healthy food, and so it became clear that to grow the company why not grow with this trend of people looking for health and nutrition type ingredients.
“So we’ve made acquisitions, and we’ve diversified away from that and really have grown the company with modified starches that really provide a very healthy ingredient.”
Gordon, born in 1953, studied math at MIT in the 1970s, originally intending to be a high school math teacher.
“Instead I met these incredible women that were going to be lawyers, doctors, and PhDs in nutrition and science,” she said. “It really influenced me to say ‘Wait a minute. I can do more than teach.’ which was a traditional field. And that’s when I decided to go into business.”
Gordon earned a Masters degree in business and decided to go into manufacturing because there were so few women, and she felt it was an opportunity to be a “pioneer”.
This eventually led to her first CEO role, heading up Alcun Packaging, a division of Rio Tinto.
“They wanted me to move to Paris and make a decision in 48 hours. My family was in Chicago, and I didn’t know quite how we would make it happen. But it was a great opportunity to be a global CEO of a six and half billion dollar company, and I said ‘I’ll take it, and I’ll figure it out.”
Gordon has never been afraid of standing out.
At school, she complained to her principal about being forced to take sewing and cooking classes with the girls, and instead took shop lessons with the boys.
Later, at MIT, she was outnumbered by more than 10 to one by men.
“I’ve always pushed ahead and been a pioneer in everything that I’ve done,” she said.